Zoe has challenged powerful opponents--suddenly the huntress becomes the hunted. But you shouldn't count your kittens before they are born. In the total darkness of a large cave system, she has to face her true origin.
The transfer in Livorno, in an old truck garage with disintegrating finery, partially broken windows and torn-out installations, iridescent oil pools and a ten-year-old calendar with a scantily clad girl on the wall between spare parts where they had met at dawn, had run smoothly and professionally. Jerome had been delighted by Zoe's special offer that she had presented in the end, especially when he had moved his Geiger meter across the empty payload bay and had heard the increasing humming--the fading remnants of a recently removed nuclear warhead. Then he had waved Zoe to the side of the garage to hand her the money suitcase, while his staff had begun to load their own truck.
She already knew how much money he had withdrawn and could estimate from the suitcase's weight that he brought about that amount. Nevertheless she had to play the game by the rules, so she opened the suitcase locks while she watched Jerome and his new bodyguard--a stringy, black-clad Asian with a poker face and a Japanese sword on his back, looking like a Ninja, in the heart of Italy, not exactly inconspicuous. Where had Jerome picked that one up?
Zoe didn't care, even if she wore no obvious weapons. In exchange for the slinky tank top today she wore a black body and a white blazer with her black jeans and trainers, and therefore she had left the crate-hauling completely to Jerome's team.
Something was wrong. Jerome appeared tense and insecure, impatient? He was sweating, Zoe smelled fear. His Ninja was energized all the time anyway. Then Jerome said straight to her face, "You are a stoolie!"
She threw a quick glance at the suitcase in her hand, and her features froze. It only contained newspaper.
* * * *
When her hidden cameras recorded the slender features of Zoe's present and transmitted them, April drew a hard breath. A cruise missile? How could have Zoe got her hands on that? April had known that Zoe had brought a surprise, but hadn't insisted on premature revelation. "Don't spoil the fun," Zoe had said. Oh yes. And we're carrying a nuclear weapon platform worth a half million dollars, black market price accordingly higher, around in the country of an ally to play cats and mice with a few terrorists.
The Geiger meter event only made things worse. April was just glad that the warhead wasn't included, but after all Zoe had promised by no means ever to deliver real nukes to their customers.
Hopefully the rest of their mission would run as well as their procurement in Genoa. That April took the back seat this time for one followed from their roles in Frankfurt, moreover they both agreed that Jerome was dangerous. "Like a hand grenade with a broken pin," Zoe had illustrated, "you don't know if and when it will go off." Unlike Don Pasquale, who lead a regional business, Jerome had no obligations to keep, could change his area of business any time. And he had no need to cater for traditional honor among thieves. His only reason not to cheat was the hope to continue business, eventually the missing information about Zoe's means would emerge. With a larger entourage they could have built a credible threat of force, but they both still hoped to foster uncertainty by the obvious lack of bodyguards bristling with arms.
April felt concerned by the Ninja's presence. What's this long knife here for?
Outside of Zoe's field of vision, shielded by the trucks, April detected a new pattern of movements. No more pushing crates, what was going on? She intensely studied her screen, enlarged the respective window.
Zoe had said that Jerome had no reason to try a trick before the main delivery, but of course that wasn't guaranteed.
Then her camera screens went dark.
* * * *
Zoe looked up shocked, her thoughts racing. Stoolie? How did he find out, did they make a mistake? Had their cover been blown, had someone recognized them? She had carefully scanned Jerome's data, he didn't have any information regarding Zoe or April, but perhaps one of his staff did? Beads of perspiration on his forehead, accelerated heartbeat, faster breath, narrowed pupils--he didn't appear entirely convinced himself. Could she turn the situation? They needed more from him, access to his masterminds, before all a hint what was really going on. Who would start a religious war and tear the world into a nuclear winter? Until now their mission had run silently, and it should stay that way. Her new boss wouldn't like it if they served him a clearly visible botch right away. Only, if Jerome asked for a fiasco, he'd get it. Would it have to happen?
His staff was still loading the truck? Yes, the sounds of heavy crates set down hadn't muted yet, only become less frequent? Hasty steps in the back, silent but not silent enough for Zoe, the rub of fabric on fabric, the clacking sound of safety switches, snapping of supposedly sneakily operated locks. That really didn't sound good!
Only Zoe's improved hearing could detect the hushed chafing of the clean Japanese sword in the stiff black sheath. As she was about to turn around to the Ninja guy who had almost noiselessly moved behind her back, the sharp edge of the Katana already approached her neck.